FORT RILEY, Kan. - The U.S Army division that broke through Iraq's defensive front line used plows mounted on tanks and combat earthmovers to bury thousands of enemy soldiers - some still alive and firing their weapons - according to U.S. Army officials.
In the first two days of ground fighting in Operation Desert Storm last February, three brigades of the 1st Mechanized Infantry Division used the grisly innovation to destroy more than 70 miles of Iraqi trenches and bunkers being defended by more than 8,000 Iraqi soldiers, according to division estimates.
About 2,000 soldiers surrendered. But Iraqi dead and wounded, as well as defiant soldiers still firing their weapons, were buried beneath tons of sand, according to participants in the carefully planned and rehearsed assault.
"Once we went through there, other than the ones who surrendered, there wasn't anybody left," said Capt. Bennie Williams, who was awarded the Silver Star for his role.
Reporters were banned from witnessing the Feb. 24-25 attack, near the tip of the neutral zone that straddles the border between Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
Not a single American was killed during the attack that made an Iraqi body count impossible.
"For all I know, we could have killed thousands," said Col. Anthony Moreno, commander of the 2nd Brigade that led the assault on the heaviest defenses.
"I came through right after the lead company. What you saw was a bunch of buried trenches with peoples' arms and things sticking out of them."
A thinner line of trenches on Moreno's left flank was attacked by the 1st Brigade, commanded by Col. Lon Maggart. Maggart estimated that his force buried about 650 Iraqi soldiers.
Estimates could not be obtained from 3rd Brigade commanders. The 3rd Brigade was made up of units from the 2nd Armored Division.
Moreno and Maggart were among 1st Division troops to provide the first public details of the trench-line attack. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney made no mention of the 1st Division's tactics in a recent interim report to Congress on Operation Desert Storm. The only mention of burying Iraqi troops came when Cheney acknowledged that 457 dead enemy soldiers were buried during the ground war.
In most cases, each section of trench line was assigned two Abrams main battle tanks with plows shaped like giant teeth. The tanks took up positions on either side of the trenches, most of them 3 feet wide and 6 feet deep. Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Vulcan armored carriers fired into the Iraqi soldiers as the tanks covered them with mounds of sand.
Every American in the assault was inside armored vehicles, impervious to Iraqi small-arms fire. As the juggernaut rolled along, it had a dramatic effect on Iraqi troops watching the operation.
"As soldiers saw what we were doing and how effective and fast we were doing it, they began jumping out of their holes and surrendering," Moreno said.
Moreno and Maggart said the tactic was used as a means of minimizing U.S. casualties.
"I know burying people like that sounds pretty nasty," Maggart said, "but it would be even nastier if we had to put our troops in the trenches and clean them out with bayonets."
Moreno acknowledged the attack was at odds with an Army doctrine that calls for, but does not require, troops to leave their armored vehicles to clean out the trenches or to bypass and isolate fortified positions.
"This was not doctrine," Moreno said. "My concept is to defeat the enemy with your power and equipment. We're going to bludgeon them with every piece of equipment we've got. I'm not going to sacrifice the lives of my soldiers - it's not cost-effective."
The 1st Division engineer, Lt. Col. Stephen Hawkins, who helped devise the tactic, said it was designed in part to terrorize the Iraqis into surrendering and to destroy defensive positions for troops who might reinforce the defensive line.
But all the participants involved said the prime objective of the burial assault was to destroy the Iraqi defenders.
The Pentagon has withheld details of the assault from the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, committee officials said.
Burying the Iraqi trench lines was part of the bloodiest phase of the war for Iraqi troops as the 1st Division breached an 11-mile-wide gap in the frontline. The gap allowed two divisions of VII Corps safe passage for the brunt of the assault on Iraq's best troops, the Republican Guard.
Because the Iraqi barrier - stretching from the neutral zone to the Persian Gulf - posed the biggest threat to allied troops, it had been pounded since Jan. 16 by B-52 strategic bombers, tactical fighters and artillery barrages.
Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the allied commander, said U.S. troops found "very, very many dead" in the Iraqi front lines. And Schwarzkopf's staff has privately estimated that 50,000 to 75,000 Iraqis were killed in their trenches.
Pfc. Joe Queen of the 1st Engineers was awarded a Bronze Star for burying the Iraqi trenches with his combat earthmover.
"A lot of the guys were scared," Queen said. "But I enjoyed it."
---------------------------- BULLDOZERS AS ATTACK WEAPONS ---------------------------- U.S. forces used battle bulldozers and tanks outfitted with blades to bury Iraqi troops alive in their border trenches and reach the Republican Guard to the north.
Feb. 24-25 attack route
Republican Guard troops